SPECIAL REPORT

Offshore giant PHI improves performance in Gulf of Mexico with S92s and ADS-B

Safety and accuracy standards enhanced with new Sikorsky helicopters and better avionics equipment.


Chief Pilot Michael Hurst's job is to ensure that PHI's pilots are current and qualified to conduct ADS-B based IFR ops.

Attaway says PHI was the first operator to equip with ADS-B because its management was willing to support the program financially, believing the long-term benefits would justify the cost, and because its team had the technical expertise.

Among the key PHI personnel playing critical roles in the Gulf ADS-B saga were Dir of Avionics Rickey Labit (pronounced La-BEE) and Dir of Maintenance Tony Gonzalez.

Labit joined PHI in 1980 after a career as an electronics technician on ICBMs in the US Air Force.

An avid reader, Labit is self taught as an engineer, and Attaway specifically cites Labit's talents as a key element in PHI's success in the ADS-B initiative. Gonzalez learned his helicopter maintenance skills in the Army, working on Bell OH58s and UH1s. He joined PHI in 1981 and holds A&P and IA certificates. He was named director of maintenance and Part 145 maintenance 2 years ago.

Together Labit and Gonzalez had to engineer and install ADS-B in PHI's S92 and S76C++ helicopters—no simple task since they were designing to a set of standards that FAA had not yet defined. All they had to go on was a letter of agreement (LOA) outlining FAA's intentions.

A basic ADS-B installation is fairly straightforward in theory. It requires a position source, typically GPS, and a reporting module, usually a Mode S transponder with expanded squitter capability. (Squitter is the data stream broadcast by the transponder.)

Dir Maintenance and Part 145 Maintenance Tony Gonzalez supervised the installation of ADS-B avionics in PHI's fleet of Sikorsky S92 and S76C++ helicopters.

But actually getting a system certified and functioning properly in an aircraft—particularly a helicopter—proved challenging. For example, Labit and Gonzalez soon learned that not all GPS equipment will interface with every Mode S transponder. To achieve a successful installation it was necessary to identify compatible equipment.

PHI's S92s as delivered from the manufacturer were well equipped to accept ADS-B. Certified in the transport category, they were the first rotorcraft delivered with avionics packages comparable with modern-day business jets, including FMS and a Rockwell Collins Mode S transponder that, with some upgrades from the manufacturer, would perform to the ADS-B standards Labit and Gonzalez believed FAA would finally mandate.

ADS-B for the S76

Developing the ADS-B package for the S76C++ required more of a kit-building approach. Delivered with basic nav/comm avionics and a Mode C transponder, PHI had added both Universal FMS and Garmin GPS, as well as EGPWS, TCAS, coupled auto­pilot, Mode S transponder and other equipment necessary to support its mission.

S-92 Line Training Capt Gary Lee says ADS-B makes his life much easier.

It was during the adaptation of the S76C++ that Labit and Gonzalez discovered the Garmin GPS wouldn't interface properly with the Rockwell Collins Mode S trans­ponder, although Labit subsequently came up with a box that would allow the 2 units to work together.

Throughout the process, FAA worked closely with PHI. To facilitate the installation and development process, FAA installed an ADS-B ground station—1 of just 5 in the US at the time—at PHI's LFT (Lafayette LA) headquarters.

"When we were approached by FAA to make this happen," Gonzalez related, "they promised to support us at the highest levels in Washington DC, and they did. They gave us a lot of engineering support, and helped push some of the avionics manufacturers to help us find solutions."

There were a host of technical and regulatory issues to sort through. For example, the modified Mode S transponders necessary to support ADS-B carried a different part number than the standard Mode S units, and hadn't had the vibration testing necessary to be certified for installation in a helicopter—a time-consuming and expensive process.

The units they had been developed from had been tested and approved, though, and finally it was decided that was good enough.

When it came time to certify the aircraft installations, FAA's Fort Worth Rotorcraft Directorate, which governs all rotorcraft certification, was unable to issue a blanket STC since the rules regarding ADS-B were still not finalized.

Fort Worth suggested instead a field approval (337) for a 1-time installation on each individual aircraft. PHI and the directorate appealed to Washington and, after some discussion, blanket STCs for PHI's ADS-B installations in the S92 and S76C++ were approved.

Dir of Avionics Rickey Labit worked closely with avionics manufacturers and FAA to engineer and develop the ADS-B installations in the PHI fleet.

While Labit and Gonzalez were getting PHI's fleet equipped and certified for ADS-B, Chief Pilot Michael Hurst was preparing his flightcrews.

As chief pilot, it is Hurst's job to establish and maintain standardized operating procedures and ensure that PHI's pilots are current and qualified. He is responsible for PHI's extensive training operation, including 3 flight standards managers, around 25 instructors and a cadre of line check airmen.

Hurst learned to fly helicopters with the US Army, piloting UH1 gunships in Vietnam. He joined PHI as a line pilot in 1974 and flew in the Gulf until 1980 when he transferred to PHI's operation in Saudi Arabia. While there he primarily flew hoisting operations, was named a base manager and also became a company instructor/check airman.

Hurst came back to the US as a line pilot in 1987, then joined the training department in 1988. He was named dir of training in 1992. After a brief period as interim dir of safety in 1993, he was named chief pilot in 1994.

Training for ADS-B

PHI performs most of its own training. For its medium and heavy helicopters, including all the ADS-B equipped aircraft, recurrent training is performed in FlightSafety Inc (FSI) Level D simulators that PHI dry leases, using PHI instructors and the company's own training syllabus. The exception is initial S92 training, which FSI conducts.

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